Photos of LGBTQ people in Hong Kong ‘playing it straight’ feature in awkward exhibition that challenges attitudes towards sexual minorities
The couples look uncomfortable, their body language forced. There’s also little eye contact and a lot of awkward hand holding.
But capturing discomfort is the point of “Playing it Straight”, a photography exhibition by Shawn P Griffin and Leslie Montgomery that shines a light on society’s attitudes towards sexual minorities.
On show at the Hong Kong Arts Collective (HKArts) in Wan Chai until February 24, “Playing it Straight” takes people of different sexual orientations – heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual – and puts them in intimate situations that do not match their own sexuality.
The social experiment not only gauges the reactions of those being photographed and the people around them, but also invites the audience to reflect on their own attitudes towards relationships.
The photos featured in “Playing it Straight” aim to capture discomfort to drive home their message that sexuality doesn’t have “an off and on switch”. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Collective.
For some in the LGBTQ community, being asked to “play it straight”, often by conservative parents who put conforming to societal standards before the happiness of their children, is common. But sexuality, say the photographers, does not have an off and on switch – it is a paramount aspect of who people are, and that’s the message they want to hit home.
“We also wanted to showcase the thought process of being with a gender that you’re not attracted to – to show just how jarring and uncomfortable it can be for either side of the sexual spectrum,” Griffin says.
A portrait featured in “Playing it Straight”. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Collective
“LGBTQ issues in Hong Kong are often shaped by a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ – a lot of the time parents and families think that even if you are LGBTQ, you can just suppress that and pretend to be straight.”
Montgomery agrees: “A lot of people hide that side of themselves from their parents … they’re not lying, but just not giving them the full truth.”
Many of the photos were taken in iconic Hong Kong settings: a fishing boat in Aberdeen, a food court in Sheung Wan and a busy wet market in Causeway Bay. Griffin took the couple photos, while the portraits that also feature in the exhibition were taken by Montgomery.
A quote from the subjects about their sexual identity accompanies each portrait photo in the exhibition. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Collective
Accompanying each portrait is a quote from the subjects, who only use one name, about their own sexual identity.
Andrea, for example, thinks “she is very straight”.
“I used to kiss a girl and almost kissed another girl and I didn’t feel comfortable about it. I watched the movie Blue is the Warmest Colour and was astonished by the sex scene. But don’t think I’d be comfortable having sex with a girl.”
As for Stanley, he says: “I would identify myself as a homosexual male. As I grow up, I have never been sexually attracted to the opposite sex.”
The photographers wanted “to showcase the thought process of being with a gender that you’re not attracted to”. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Collective
The photos in “Playing it Straight” show people from across the sexual spectrum. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Collective
Tommy is more fluid. “I prefer not to label my sexual orientation and allow people to assume whatever they choose. People tend to project preconceptions of sexual identities regardless of self-definition.”
For the American photographers – Griffin is from Missouri and Montgomery is from Kansas – the exhibition has been a long time coming, delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Montgomery has called Hong Kong home for more than a decade, the photographer drawn to the city’s energy. “It’s such a visually stimulating place and I still get a lot of inspiration from the neon signs, old buildings and mountains,” she says.
Photos for “Playing it Straight” were taken in iconic Hong Kong settings. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Collective
A photo featured in “Playing it Straight”. Photo: Hong Kong Arts Collective
Griffin is proactive in Hong Kong’s LGBTQ community, and was the director of arts and culture for the 2023 Gay Games Hong Kong.
While same-sex unions are still not recognised in Hong Kong, the city has taken some progressive steps, including one last year when a top court ruled that the policy of requiring trans people to undergo sex reassignment surgery to change their legal gender was unconstitutional.
And Hong Kong does provide a feeling of safety, Griffin says, something he didn’t always feel growing up in the American Midwest.
“I’m also a drag queen and take Hong Kong public transport in full costume and make-up to my gigs without any issues. Some people I know that do drag in the United States say that would not be possible,” he says.
HKArts co-founder Pete Ross says “Playing it Straight” aligns perfectly with the institution’s objective to give artists a platform to express themselves freely.
“We believe in an inclusive community and the power of art to address issues in society,” says Ross, who founded HKArts with fellow artists Kyra Campbell and Marc Allante.
“We’re incredibly grateful that Shawn and Leslie chose to work with us and so happy we can finally exhibit their impactful project.”
Playing it Straight, HKArts, 181-185 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai. Ends February 24.